Personal Agency

In last week’s blog, I mentioned that I have ignored potentially dangerous behaviors in my work life and in personal relationships that I knew I should address. In my attempts to avoid upsetting anyone, I pretty much accepted whatever situations into which I wandered. For some reason, it never occurred to me that I had any power to improve any circumstances of my own life. It did not occur to me that I could leave a situation. It did not occur to me that I could draw boundaries. It did not occur to me that I could rewrite my own narrative.

Let me cite some examples to give you an idea of what I mean.

In my work life, the government paid me to serve the public. Because of the nature of my position, my customers were often not at their best.  I was an excellent employee, embracing the idea of service… to a fault. Most professionals with whom I worked lauded my level of professionalism, efficiency, accessibility, and genuine desire to help. I was proud of my approach to the job and I value that legacy. However, if I am honest, I think I behaved the way I did only partly because of kindness, empathy, professional pride and integrity. A good part of my super-performance was my desire to avoid conflict.

I did not consider whether a request was reasonable or even possible. I did not just go the extra mile. Sometimes, I traveled a marathon of extra miles while dragging the wreckage of my own sanity behind me. I contorted my physical, mental, and spiritual health into a raggedy tangle of anxiety in my attempts to do what other people wanted. 

I did not consider the demeanor and cooperation of the customer. Sometimes customers were flat out abusive, even in the face of my unbelievable efforts to give them what they wanted. I remember one person telling me that she hoped I would be cursed with seven years of tragedy. Another customer tore the eyes off my pet rock when I went to the photocopier.

It was not just customers, either. I somehow had this idea that if an employee- or especially a supervisor- asked me to do something, it must be something possible and I had to figure out a way to accomplish the task. I never thought about pushing back with the reasons why the requested action was impossible within the constraints of my set of circumstances.

Even in volunteer activities, I still felt that my own needs and wants were immaterial. If anyone else had any sort of expectation of me at all, I would subjugate even critical needs of my own.

What is incredibly weird about all of this is that others did offer me opportunities to make decisions that would be good for me- delegating more work, refusing the assignment, setting reasonable boundaries with customers, and developing a work-at-home schedule to minimize the stress of an ungodly commute. I somehow thought that taking advantage of any of these options would make me weak or lazy. I did not feel that my worth was sufficient to merit these sorts of adaptations.

In my personal relationships, it was even worse. When my husband left me, the break was not clean. I spent months waiting for him to decide if he was coming back. It never occurred to me that I could be the one to decide that he wasn’t. In another malignant relationship, which I was ending, I let the man continue to engage me by responding to his requests for assistance. It took something dramatic for me to finally stop entertaining contact with him. Sometimes, when one of these dangerous relationships ended, I would have nightmares that the man was attacking me with a knife. It was my dream, but my dream self did not think to grab the knife from the guy and turn the tables.

Even in good, healthy, loving relationships, I struggled to ask for even the smallest, most minimally intrusive adaptations to my needs and wants.  I couldn’t even tell people who clearly loved me and valued me that I wanted something from them.

I did not even initially connect the real me to my own blog. I imagined a “creative name” in order to write in anonymity and to avoid hurting anyone else’s feelings. It took me over two years of writing a weekly post to reveal my actual name and own up to who I truly am. 

For most of my life, I have been acting like I was couch-surfing on a life that didn’t belong to me. I lived quietly, timidly, non-intrusively. I did everything in my power to be as little trouble to anyone as possible because I believed my mere existence was more than sufficient inconvenience to the world. When I think about what I might have wanted or needed in the past, the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind. A person who is living on a friend’s couch really can’t be asking for a duvet. So, I didn’t ask. I simply accepted what came my way and was grateful for it.

A lot of the shift in my understanding of myself and my value and my ability to create happiness in my own life came about because of my life coaching with Todd Payne (Todd Payne (  I have been working with him for some time now and have learned that my pattern of existence has been to dismiss the possibility that I have any ability to change the circumstances of my own life. I have learned that it is important to at least consider my own needs and wants as a factor in making decisions… maybe even the first factor.  I have been learning that I have agency to consider those needs. I can make decisions that honor and fulfill them.  I have been learning that exerting my agency will increase my own happiness. I am also learning that exerting agency in my life will probably not lead to any huge disruption of anyone else’s life. In fact, it is quite possible that it may create happiness for others as well.

Over the past year or so, I have purposefully acted to create agency in my own life. For instance, I’ve come to terms with the toxicity in many of my past relationships. I now understand that I had every right to insist on changes or to leave. In beautiful, healthy relationships, I’ve come to understand that the relationship partners will not only agree to make changes to help me be happy. They will welcome the opportunity to do so. I have been making requests. These requests are not “demands.” In fact, I do not even see them as requests for particular changes or actions. They are requests to engage with me to see if there are ways we can both be happier and more satisfied. These conversations are bonding and fruitful. I have stood up for myself and my beliefs when others have attempted to bully me into acquiescence. I cut back on a big chunk of my volunteer activities because I realized they were eating me up more than they were feeding me.

My life is much happier and healthier now that I’ve clothed myself in some degree of self-determination. It is very grounding to understand that I often have the power to change my circumstances without causing the earth to spin off its axis. Even when I do not have the power to change my circumstances, I can almost always choose the way I frame and respond to them. As I cautiously begin taking actions and having conversations to be more self-determinate, I feel liberated… and the fall-out has not been nearly as profoundly negative as I thought it would be. Who knew that agency in one’s own life is such a crucial factor to mental health? When I say it like that, it seems obvious. Still, it was not obvious to me for nearly 65 years.

How do you reach the right balance between being self-determinate in meeting your own needs and being a loving, giving person who cares about others?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at

Have a self-determining day!

Terri/DORRY 😊

The Lights On The Christmas Tree

Many of you know that 2023 has been a pivotal year for me. It has been scary, challenging, and painful. On the other hand, it has been a year of great growth and liberation. I’ve learned so much. I’ve spent most of my life living in fear and emotional  pain, thinking it was imperfectly normal. This year, I’ve discovered how it feels when pain is not my de facto state of being. It feels more wonderful than I can say. I find myself often reflecting on my improved mental health with a sense of awe and bemusement.

I was talking to my life coach Todd about this transformation. In coaching me, one of his main areas of emphasis has been emotional resilience. He helps me learn to sit with difficult emotions, understanding that I will be able to withstand them and that they will pass. One of his axioms is that feelings are not forever.  There have been many opportunities for me to practice this skill in the past couple of years. As I have developed emotional resiliency, my major focus has been mostly relief when I don’t feel shattered and valueless. I have been gaining strength and confidence, especially over the past year. Recently, I have started to think beyond the moments of relief and contentment, wondering if this newfound peace can really be a new default way of being for me going forward.

I told Todd that I understood his perspective that feelings are not forever. I agreed that I have experienced the phenomenon of paddling my emotional resiliency boat into safe harbors over the past couple of years. However, I can also look in my rear-view mirror and see a time not so long ago when feelings WERE forever. I asked Todd how I could be confident that I was changed in some fundamental way that would prevent me from turning future painful feelings into forever conditions. He replied with a metaphor that resonated profoundly with me.

He explained that, for many years, I had no concept of self-determination. I had no understanding that I had any power to change conditions that made me depressed, scared, angry, or other otherwise emotionally hobbled.  No matter what happened in my life, no matter how anyone treated me, no matter what needs I had- I simply accepted whatever came my way, believing I had no right or ability to change it. Now, I know that I have agency in my own life. I can often take actions and have conversations that can change my circumstances. I can choose how I respond to events that I do not have the capacity to change. Todd said it was like having a stone in my shoe. Most of my life, I wandered around with a stone in my shoe without even knowing I had a stone in my shoe. I just knew something hurt. Since I did not know there was a stone stabbing into the sole of my foot, I never took my shoe off to shake it out. Therefore, the pain WAS forever. Now, I know that there is a stone in my shoe. I can take time out to extract it when necessary, so the pain will be temporary.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to muse a little more about this metaphor. I decorated the house for Christmas.  I pulled out the self-lighting tree I purchased last year. It is one of those fancy-dancy trees that have this “magic” central pole to make the tree light up all over without having to attach multiple strings of lights to each other. I love the lights on this tree. They are so colorful, with pure, clean shades of pink, blue, green, yellow, red, and blue. It makes me happy just to look at them.

I heaved the tree out of its box, struggling to stabilize the trunk in the holder and maneuver the upper section into place. I am just a little too short on one end and a lot too lacking in upper body strength to assemble the entire thing without breaking a sweat. The tree also attacked me with its thousands of sharp plastic needles, leaving bloody scratches on my forearms.  Finally, I had the entire structure standing straight and strong, overlooking my living room. The colorful universe of lights twinkled from top to bottom.

I lovingly unwrapped my ornaments- all of which hold sentimental meaning for me. There is not a single boxed, generic Christmas ball on my tree. I have one ornament that graced my maternal grandmother’s tree when she was a child. I have numerous Tinkerbell ornaments. I can tell you where Max and I were visiting when I purchased many of them. I have a reindeer wearing Alohawear swimming trunks from my first trip to Hawaii- he does jumping jacks when I pull a string. I have a hippopotamus ornament that I originally bought for my mother soon after we moved to Florida. We used to drive by this store that sold large bronze statuary. One day, Momma mused out loud why anyone would want a huge bronze hippo on their front lawn. Confused, I asked her what she meant. She pointed to one of the statues on display. I advised her that it was a cow, not a hippopotamus. That ornament always makes me laugh.

I found places on the tree for each ornament, reminiscing as I worked. Finally, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. I saw that it was good. The ornaments brought me joy and the lights sparkled. I felt like the completed Christmas tree was worth the considerable effort and lacerations. I went into another room to do some additional decorating.

When I returned to the living room, something looked wrong to me. It took me a second to realize it, but it soon hit me that the top half of the tree was no longer twinkling. It was no longer glowing. It was no longer colorful. It was no longer lit. It seemed that the magic pole had lost its magic, no longer transmitting power through both sections of the tree. I had limited options for troubleshooting because it is not that easy to manipulate a tree decked out with 64+ years of sentimental ornaments. I gingerly tried a few possibilities, but to no avail. The bottom had twinkling, colorful lights dancing around it, but the lights came to an abrupt halt mid-tree. It looked silly, so I decided it would be better to turn the lights off completely.

As the evening wore on, I kept looking at the tree in all its non-lit splendor. It made me sad to see it so lifeless and flat. Also, because there were no lights drawing my eye to the sparkle, all I saw was the clumsiness of my ornament placement. The blank spaces and the places on the tree where too many ornaments bunched together glared at me.  All the joy I felt in decorating the tree seemed artificial. I experienced a palpable feeling of pain, disappointment, and resignation. I prepared myself to tolerate the lightless tree for the next few weeks, trying to convince myself that it was okay.

It wasn’t okay, though. I was downright sad. I thought about buying a few strings of lights to give the tree a little oomph, but everyone knows that the lights go on the tree first. I wasn’t sure how it would work to try to string the lights around the already decorated tree. I sure as heck did not want to remove all the ornaments and start over again. It seemed like a waste of money to buy lights, since the tree came with plenty of lights… if they would just light. I kept trying to convince myself that it was not a big deal, but I could not let it go. It was a stone in my shoe.

By the next day, I had decided. I didn’t care if the lights were supposed to go on first. I didn’t care if I was spending $20-$30 that I should not have had to spend. I wanted lights on my Christmas tree, and it was within my power to have them. I took myself to Lowe’s, bought three hundred colored lights, and added a string of clear lights to put around the bottom of the tree, for good measure.  When I got home, I draped the lights around the tree, over the ornaments.  It was not perfect. In fact, it is pretty messy and bunchy in places. Removing the lights will probably be a nightmare. But you know what? When the lights are on, I don’t see the mess. I just see the lights. And they make me happy.

There was a time when I would have simply lived with the lightless tree, silently grieving while putting on a happy face. I would have simply tried to tolerate the disappointment because that was my state of being. I certainly would not have entertained the notion that I could do anything to change my set of circumstances… or that it was okay for me to even want to change it.

I guess an old elf can learn new tricks. 

What have you learned this holiday season? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me to

Have a holly jolly day!

Terri/Dorry 😊